Free speech policy, controversial conservative academic on the agenda for tomorrow’s UNC Board of Governors meeting

By: - December 14, 2017 2:03 pm

The UNC Board of Governors is holding its last meeting of 2017 Friday, where the latest of its many recent controversies is expected to come to a crescendo, even as the next is cued up.

The full board is expected to vote on a controversial new speech policy that civil liberties advocates, students, staff and faculty groups worry could chill speech and discourage certain types of protest on UNC’s 17 campuses.

The policy seems to have the backing of the board, despite opposition from the UNC Faculty Assembly, faculty senates and the Association of American University Professors and concerns raised by the UNC Employee Forum and student leaders.

Critics call the feeling of inevitability about the policy yet another example of the almost entirely Republican board, appointed by a GOP dominated N.C. General Assembly, pulling the UNC system in a more conservative direction despite the objections of those who work for and are served by its universities.

Robert P. George

Those criticisms have been further stoked by the guest the board will welcome Friday for a discussion of civil discourse: Robert George, a conservative professor and director of the James Madison Program on American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

George, called America’s “most influential conservative Christian thinker” by the New York Times, has made the Princeton program an important “beachhead” for conservative thought in academia.

George and his program have a number of admirers on the board of governors. After a delegation from the board – including UNC System President Margaret Spellings and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt – made a trip to Princeton to see the program this fall, a conversation began among board members about the possibility of adding such a program at UNC.

That conversation comes after the board’s hobbling of a number of centers that were frequent targets of the political right wing. That includes the shuttering of UNC’s Center on Work, Poverty and Opportunity, North Carolina Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change and East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity and the barring of the UNC Center for Civil Rights from litigating.

Dr. Michael C. Behrent

“It speaks to a sort of hypocrisy at the center of a lot of these Board of Governors decisions,” said Dr. Michael C. Behrent, an associate professor in the Department of History at Appalachian State University. “They criticized these other centers as too political or not what a university center should be doing. But praising this sort of center, talking about opening this sort of center, it shows you they believe there are some ideas that people should consider and some they shouldn’t and they’re going to use their muscle to make sure that some are considered and some are not at the university level.”

Behrent is also vice-president of the North Carolina state conference of the Association of American University Professors, which is opposing the new speech policy.

He said the two issues – establishing a speech policy that many across the UNC system worry will be used to target liberal protests while protecting the most controversial conservative speech and the board’s admiration of prominent conservative academic centers – are of a piece. Both, he said, are goals that are more about politics than academics and dangerous to academic freedom.

The fact that the board has been so cheerily dismissive of strong opposition from students, faculty and staff – the life’s blood of the university system – is chilling but not surprising, Behrent said.

“This is what it’s like to live with unaccountable and frankly undemocratic institutions,” Behrent said. “We’re seeing an increased willingness on the part of leaders in our state – with an increased boldness and perhaps desperation – to make these moves that show us that they see the higher education system, including UNC, as an ideological obstacle to achieving their goals. So they’re at war with that obstacle.

Dr. Gabriel Lugo

Dr. Gabriel Lugo, chair of the UNC Faculty Assembly, said faculty members are relieved to have gotten a few concessions in the speech policy but still oppose it as written and have expressed that to the board in a statement.

Faculty members have also expressed concern with the board’s affection for George and his Princeton program, Lugo said, but the assembly isn’t taking an official stance on the idea of such a program at UNC until there’s an actual proposal.

“If there’s an actual intent to intrude into the faculty’s prerogative to set the curriculum, that would be met with wide opposition from the faculty, beginning with the faculty assembly,” Lugo said.

Having read George’s work and examined his positions, Lugo said they are not very different from what is taught at many conservative Catholic institutions – but are not necessarily the kind of thing that belongs at a public university.

“A religious, ideological perspective is not something that belongs as an imposition from outside, something that needs to permeate the curriculum at a university,” Lugo said.

The creation of conservative centers comes from a common feeling on the political right that their viewpoint isn’t valued in academia, Lugo said. But that’s not true at better schools, including UNC, he said. Those viewpoints just aren’t presented as the only and obviously valid view.

“There is a misperceived conception that different points of view are not allowed or are not presented in the university,” Lugo said. “But that’s just not true. The curriculum is an open inquiry curriculum.”

George’s program has gained praise and generated buzz among even non-conservative students, particularly for high profile courses taught with Dr. Cornell West, a high profile left-leaning intellectual. But George’s political work has brought plenty of controversy. That includes his drafting of The Manhattan Declaration, which called religious conservatives to civil disobedience rather than compliance with laws that would in any way involve them in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage, which it compares to incest.

“He has his perspective,” Lugo said of George. “It is a conservative perspective that embraces conservative religious values that have been embraced throughout history. There is a place for that in a public university, where departments of religion and philosophy where professors examine all sorts of philosophies. But they are not taught as the correct philosophy.”

There are those who believe that universities should narrow their teaching, to concentrate only on Western Civilization and its values, Lugo said.

“We hear comments like this but in general we don’t worry about those,” Lugo said. “If there was a policy which tried to change the curriculum, we would oppose that.”

[Editor’s note: Joe Killian will be providing live coverage of tomorrow’s meetings at UNC. Follow him on Twitter @JoekillianPW throughout the day and check the Progressive Pulse blog for updates as well.]

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.